To understand the historical and artistic, spiritual, and philosophical message of the Sansevero Chapel, it is necessary to know the biography of its patron, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero. The main source for reconstructing the majority of his life, thanks to its wealth and precision of information, is the second volume of the Istoria dello Studio di Napoli (1754) by Giangiuseppe Origlia. The anonymous Short note on what can be seen in the house of the Prince of Sansevero is also essential reading (the first edition, of 1766, was corrected and enlarged in 1767), together with the works published by di Sangro himself, as well as the endless information in guides and reports for eighteenth-century travellers, not to mention letters, literary texts, and national and international archive documents.
Scion of a very high ranking household, he was born on 30th January 1710 in Torremaggiore, in Puglia, where the Sanseveros held the majority of their feudal lands. His mother, Cecilia Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona (daughter of the Princess Aurora Sanseverino, a well known intellectual and protector of artists), died in the December of the same year. His father, Antonio di Sangro, Duke of Torremaggiore, was forced away from Italy for long periods of time for personal reasons. Entrusted to the care of his grandfather Paolo, sixth Prince of Sansevero and Knight of the Golden Fleece, at one year of age, Raimondo was transferred to Naples, then capital of the Austrian Viceroyalty, where his ancestors had settled in a remarkable palace in Largo San Domenico Maggiore. In Naples, he received his earliest education and began to study literature, geography and the knightly arts.
Very soon, however, it became clear that he had an exceptional mind. Origlia says that “his excessive brightness of spirit, and remarkable quickness” led his grandfather and father (home from Vienna around 1720) to send him to Rome to the Jesuit College, the most prestigious school of the time. Under the guidance of brilliant masters, Raimondo proved to be an excellent philosophy student and linguist (mastering at least eight languages), studying pyrotechnics and the natural sciences, hydrostatics and military architecture. On this subject, while very young, he wrote a still unpublished treatise. In the Roman seminary, he also became acquainted with the works and the natural history museum of Athanasius Kircher, famous scientist and seventeenth-century Egyptologist, whose writings were full of references to the Hermetic tradition.
1729 saw his remarkable debut as an inventor. As proof of his “marvellous intellect”, he projected, on occasion of a theatrical performance, an ingenious folding stage, which amazed even Nicola Michetti, Engineer of Czar Peter the Great. In the meantime, once his paternal grandfather had died, Raimondo came into the title and inheritance in 1726, thanks to his father refusing them. In this way, he found himself at only sixteen years old at the head of one of the more powerful families in the Kingdom. Having completed his studies in 1730, he lived in both Naples and Torremaggiore until 1737, when he took up permanent residence in Palazzo Sansevero, in the heart of the ancient centre of Naples, which had become the capital of the new Kingdom under King Charles Bourbon.
When the Prince married his cousin Carlotta Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona, heir to many feudal lands in Flanders, Giambattista Vico dedicated a sonnet to them, and Giambattista Pergolesi set the first part of a stage prelude to music in honour of the couple. Because of the prestige and intimacy he enjoyed with the young sovereign, Raimondo was appointed Gentleman of the Chamber with Office to His Majesty and, in 1740, was raised to Knight of the Order of San Gennaro, a decoration reserved to a limited élite selected by the Bourbon Crown. With his mind always “applied to new discoveries”, he distinguished himself for his inventions. Already in 1739, he had in fact created an innovative hydraulic device and an arquebus capable of firing using powder or compressed air, which he donated to Charles Bourbon.